September 11, 2012

Despite Prime Location, Former Green Cafe Lot Remains Unused

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Amid the thriving businesses on College Avenue — the commercial and social hub of Collegetown — the space that was formerly Green Café still stands vacant, more than two years after the café abruptly filed for bankruptcy in February 2010.

In April 2010, the business’ bankruptcy filing was dismissed by a federal bankruptcy court on the grounds that the company had inadequate legal representation. The business shut down the following day.

Nearly 30 months later, city officials question why the property has not been rented out by its owner, Jason Fane, who owns the Ithaca Renting Company. Though some speculate that the company demands rent that is too expensive, company representatives deny the charge.

Officials said they are concerned by the vacancy at the corner of College Avenue and Dryden Road –– which Alderperson Ellen McCollister ’78 (D-3rd Ward) called “the most valuable real estate in Collegetown.”

Alderperson Graham Kerslick (D-4th Ward) echoed her sentiments, saying that city officials and Collegetown residents are worried about the “negative impact that long-term vacant properties can have on the city.”

Both McCollister and Kerslick said that, prior to the Green Café moving into the lot in 2009, the space had been vacant for years.

“That location hasn’t had a viable business for as long as I can remember,” Kerslick said. “I’ve been in Ithaca for 30 years.”

But David Huckle ’79, commercial leasing and marketing manager of the Ithaca Renting Company, said that although the space may have appeared to be vacant before it was renovated to become the Green Café, it actually had a tenant.

“We had a lease in place with a local bank, which had an ATM at the property and used it for storage and meetings,” Huckle said.

Huckle said the 4,700-square foot commercial space has not been rented since Green Café — which closed in February 2010 after its owner filed for bankruptcy — left because it is a “specialized” building. Green Cafe was also fined $1 million for labor violations later that year.

“We have been actively looking at any and all opportunities to get the right operators for that property,” Huckle said.

Such an operator would have “experience in their particular field, whether it be hospitality or retail; a proven track record; and the financial wherewithal to take on a property of that size and setup,” he added.

Observers, however, speculate that the rent for the space is simply too high.

Huckle denied that expensive rent is a factor in the space’s continued vacancy.

“Quite frankly, if you were to look at the rents in Collegetown, without getting specific, I can tell you that we’re in line with what other larger stores are paying,” he said.

The fact that the property, 330 College Ave., is only a one-story commercial space is also unusual, city officials said.

“It’s a real economic anomaly to have a one-story building at that corner,” McCollister said. “The land value is just too high.”

Kerslick agreed, saying it does not make sense to limit the commercial space to one story, given the high property values in Collegetown.

Still, Huckle said the Ithaca Renting Company is not focused on expanding the building past a single story.

“Our primary focus has to be on renting the existing 4,700 square feet store,” he said. “A week doesn’t go by where we’re not speaking with various prospects that are looking at that property.”

However, Kerslick said that the vacant property is a waste of space. In addition to not bolstering the city’s sales tax revenue and employment, the empty space “gives the impression that it’s not a thriving community,” he said.

Kerslick compared Cayuga Street to the thriving Aurora Street in the Commons, saying it should be a commercial model for the rest of the city.

“Aurora Street, on the other hand, is a big success story; it is a vibrant setting,” Kerslick said.

But Huckle, rather than focusing on the vacancy of 330 College Ave., emphasized the successes of the Ithaca Renting Company, including the fact that it has rented four other spaces nearby within the past five months.

“The only property that we have that is vacant in Collegetown is 330 College Ave.,” he said.

Original Author: Sarah Sassoon